2020’s First-Generation MBAs: The Bold, Brilliant & Big-Hearted


Quarter million dollar price tags weren’t the only aspect of business school that gave first-generation graduates pause. For some, the old insecurities of undergrad days returned as well. Why am I here? Do I measure up? What if I fail? Daniela Diaz asked these same questions when she returned to Arizona State for her MBA. Sure enough, the results turned out the same.

Daniela Diaz, Arizona State (W. P. Carey)

“My biggest worry before starting my MBA was that I could not perform on par with my future classmates. I had a difficult time convincing myself that I was capable and deserving of my admission offer. I am happy to report I have exceeded my performance expectations.”

Now the education cycle has been renewed. In their formative years, these first-generation graduates were models, dancers, soldiers, athletes, and musicians. Natalia Eguez even managed to survive being hit by lightning! In the coming years, they will emerge as difference-making financiers, consultants, entrepreneurs, and c-suite executives. For now, they are students – pondering and exploring, formulating and testing…sometimes stumbling but always returning for more. In many cases, they remain the first among the family and friends – an honor to defend as much as a debt to repay. For those first-generation candidates intent on following their path, these students have some words of advice.


Greg Frey, a Georgia Tech Scheller second-year, urges future students to not dwell on details. They have “an uncanny way of working themselves out,” he cautions. Wharton’s Naeem Muhammed advice is to focus on personal well-being over trying to be everything for everyone. “You can’t pour from an empty cup,” he writes. At the same time, Mauricio Serna pleads for first gens to embrace their heritage.

“I urge you to never compromise your background or hide your story to “fit-in.” Be bold, take risks, share your perspective and stand out. You’re guaranteed to thrive in life by doing so.”

Chris Vettese, University of Toronto

Being first also requires maintaining a difficult balance. The first is told not to accept limits, to bounce back after setbacks and celebrate small victories. ‘Don’t be afraid to ask for help,’ they’ll hear, ‘people are happy to lend a hand.’ Along the same lines: they are cautioned to remain humble. After all, first-generation students often don’t know what they don’t know.

“Be curious and ask questions to anyone and everyone,” writes the University of Toronto’s Chris Vettese. “There really are no dumb questions, and most people that you talk to will be more than willing to help you out. There are pieces of information that other people might take for granted that you are not aware of, and the only way to uncover that is to keep a high level of curiosity to learn as much as you can from everyone that you meet.”

Above all else, adds Ana Flavia Dias, never give up.

“It will be tough. You’ll often be the only one at school and work. And when you get home, you will also be the only one. You’ll feel alone. You’ll have the unique experience of not belonging to either world and belonging to both worlds at the same time. You won’t feel understood in either world. You’ll have to work harder than your peers. The list of obstacles can feel endless. But someone has to be first, and you have the opportunity to make sure that someone is you.”

This summer, P&Q reached out to over 30 top MBA programs. Each business school was asked to pick a first-generation college graduate who beat the odds to become successful professionals and class leaders. This year’s First Generation story profiles MBA students whose courage, perseverance, growth, and achievement demonstrate the very best in business and education. From defining events to school financing strategies, here are the stories of 40 stars in their own words…

Click on MBA student links to access profiles. 

MBA Student Business School Hometown Undergrad Program Last Employer
Daniela Diaz Arizona State (W. P. Carey) Bellflower, CA Arizona State University Becton Dickinson
Martin Montes de Oca Arizona State (W. P. Carey) Sedona, AZ Arizona State University Accion
Jennifer Lopez Ramirez U.C. Berkeley (Haas) Los Angeles, CA University of California, Berkeley California State Assembly
Ankush Batra Carnegie Mellon (Tepper) Jaipur, India Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati Capital One
Mickey Colombo Carnegie Mellon (Tepper) Pompton Lakes, NJ University of Rhode Island VirtualHealth
Ari Noah Derman Carnegie Mellon (Tepper) Melville, NY University of Miami Acceleration
Nandita Jaya Carnegie Mellon (Tepper) Bhagalpur, Bihar, India Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra Microsoft
Kwaku Frimpong University of Chicago (Booth) Bronx, NY Providence College Intersection Media
Albert James Rabago Columbia Business School Pacoima, CA USC Walt Disney Company
Kori Hill Cornell University (Johnson) Baltimore, MD University of Maryland Freddie Mac
Jessica Ahn Dartmouth College (Tuck) Los Angeles, CA UCLA Accenture
Malena Lopez-Sotelo Duke University (Fuqua) Dublin, GA University of Georgia Stacey Abrams for Governor
Ivan Ibarra Emory University (Goizueta) Duncan, OK Oklahoma State University CSAA Insurance Group
Ivy Nguyen Emory University (Goizueta) Quynh Luu, Nghe An, Vietnam Foreign Trade University American Airlines
Marthaline Cooper Georgetown University (McDonough) Providence, RI Winthrop University Inovalon
Eric Frey Georgia Tech (Scheller) Fort Lauderdale, FL Georgia Tech Manhattan Associates
Grace Stewart Georgia Tech (Scheller) Morehead City, NC University of South Carolina iVision
Mauricio Serna Harvard Business School Weston, FL Georgetown University Commercial Real Estate Exchange
Ashley Johnson Indiana University (Kelley) Martinez, CA University of South Carolina Feld Entertainment
Jesse N. Pizarro Indiana University (Kelley) Levittown, NY Purdue University Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS)
Alyssa Blankenship University of Michigan (Ross) Donkin, Canada Yale University SWIFT
Kevin Vargas University of Minnesota (Carlson) Round Lake Beach, IL Yale University Medtronic
Olga Timirgalieva MIT (Sloan) Tashkent, Uzbekistan Florida Southern College McNichols Company
Daniel Rodriguez New York University (Stern) Havana, Cuba The New School (Mannes Conservatory) Greater New York Academy
Rose Telus North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler) Cap-Haitien Haiti University of Louisiana at Lafayette Petram Consulting Group
Natalia Eguez Northwestern University (Kellogg) Santa Cruz, Bolivia Stanford University U.S. Peace Corps
Emilia Lispi Notre Dame (Mendoza) Scranton, PA University of Miami Treasure Valley Family YMCA
Casey Sherrod Rice University (Jones) Crosby, TX University of Houston U.S. Army
Areeba Kamal Stanford GSB Karachi, Pakistan Mount Holyoke College Apple
Jessica Reese-White University of Texas (McCombs) Bronx, NY Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Google
Chris Vettese University of Toronto (Rotman) Toronto, Canada Queen’s University Accenture
Carmen Andrea Chávez UCLA (Anderson) San Diego, CA UCLA General Mills
Marleny De León Vanderbilt University (Owen) Tucson, AZ Northern Arizona University U.S.-Italy Fulbright Commission
Ana Flavia Dias University of Virginia (Darden) Anapolis, Brazil U.C.-Berkeley Facebook
Duckenson Joseph Washington University (Olin) Port-au-Prince, Haiti University of Illinois Dell Technologies
Anthony DePina Wharton School Boston, MA Rochester Institute of Technology Goldman Sachs
Naeem Muhammed Wharton School Accra, Ghana DePauw University Goldman Sachs
Leydiana Munguia Wharton School Dalton, GA University of Georgia Biden for President
Jamaal Wright Wharton School Houston, TX University of Texas Impact Capital Managers
Andrés Lin-Shiu Yale School of Management Montevideo, Uruguay University of Illinois March Capital Management


DON’T MISS: 2018 First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds